Israeli official expects tourism to spur cooperation

NEW YORK -- Growing numbers of visitors to the Holy Land may result in a major tourism conference and an increase in regional cooperation, Israel's minister of tourism, Amnon Lipkin-Shahak, said during a visit here.

Lipkin-Shahak said there has been an increase in tourism during the last three months and arrivals are up 10% this year over last.

He predicted 3 million arrivals next year, following an expected visit by Pope John Paul II in the spring. But, according to Lipkin-Shahak, his goal is to have significant increases after that, as well.

The surge has led to the consideration of a second Prime Minister's Tourism Conference. The first was held about four years ago by Yitzhak Rabin, who then held the chief government post. That conference drew nearly 1,000 travel professionals from around the world, he said.

According to Lipkin-Shahak, the next conference "probably" would be held in the fall of 2000. The tourism minister pointed to potential growth areas that included unused beaches along the Mediterranean Sea and the conference market.

"The opportunities are there," he said. "It is up to us to make them real."

Regarding conferences, Lipkin-Shahak observed that Hawaii is not much closer to the eastern U.S. than is Israel's Red Sea resort city of Eilat, where convention facilities have been built at several lavish hotels. The locale's seashore and desert expanse provide alluring attractions for visitors, he said.

The government minister also said he would try to revive Memtta (the Middle East-Mediterranean Travel and Tourism Association) and encourage regional travel so tourists can pursue their interests across borders. "I am a great believer in cooperation in tourism," he said.

Lipkin-Shahak added that he was hoping to warm up working relations with Egypt. Israel has had a cool peace with Egypt since the 1970s. Lipkin-Shahak said he hopes to accomplishment this through the good offices of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and the encouragement of U.S. Secretary of State Madeline Albright.

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